Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Because of Winn-Dixie
by Kate DiCamillo, read by Cherry Jones
Random House Audio, 2001 (text published in 2000)
2 discs, unabridged

This is not my first time around for this book, and I'm very happy to report that I'm sure it won't be my last, either. It improves on re-reading. Of all of the books I have read with my parent-child book club over the last three years, this has remained a steady favourite. I can think of only one or two other books that my veteran members mention as much, with as much fondness, as they mention Winn-Dixie. So when we started a second parent-child book club, this was a no-brainer choice. And when my first book club participants have all grown out of it and I'm on to a new crop of families, I'll read it with that group again.

I often don't re-read the books that I've already read for book club again, but I loved this when I read it the first time. The audiobook seemed like a good choice, and it had been a couple of years; a refresher was in order.

I'll refer you to my original entry on this book for the summary. Instead, here I'll talk a bit about the audiobook, and some of the things that occurred to me this go-round.

The audio is well done. Cherry Jones does a solid narration job, and brings India Opal Buloni and Naomi, Florida, to life. Her accent is broadly Southern and puts this Canadian more in mind of Georgia than Florida, which might have surprised me more if one of the parents in the group hadn't mentioned it to me before I got my hands on a copy. But it fits, and the cadence of Opal's voice as written really comes to life when read. It adds an extra flavour to the text, which is already rich with the feel of a small town in Florida in summer. And on audio this book is a breeze, at under two hours. It goes by almost too quickly.

I really noticed two things this time through, and they're completely unconnected. Mechanics first: this story is spare. The fact that I recognized it this time might have been exactly because the audiobook feels so short. Kate diCamillo is an expert at understatement, and there is not a single detail in this book that does not need to be there. She knows where to focus her (and therefore our) attention, and how to make time pass without narrating its passing. And she is concise. Opal and the preacher (her father) have a deeply loving relationship, and a complex one, and it is drawn in its complexity and depth with a few spare strokes. Characters, too, are drawn so carefully yet so naturally that one knows them within a few lines and yet they're not one-dimensional, unless Opal sees them as one-dimensional. And when she grows out of that view, it doesn't take more than a few words for the reader to grow their understanding of the character as well. She's a master of concision and it is a beautiful thing to read (or hear.)

The other is that though Winn-Dixie the dog may be a catalyst, he's not the star of the story as much as Opal thinks he is. She doesn't recognize it herself, but it's her integrity, bravery, and kindness that lead to the changes that happen to her over the summer. She may be braver because Winn-Dixie is beside her, but the decisions she makes are her own, and her choices to seek friendship where others might not, and to foster ties where others might not, to open lines of communications that have been silent previously, are the choices that make the difference, not Winn-Dixie's sunny, intelligent, gentle personality. And not that kids' stories have to have "good messages," but this one, in addition to being a lovely, entertaining, funny, sweetly melancholy story, does. It's a message about being kind and looking beyond the surface. That's not a bad thing to take away from a book, for a child or an adult. It's nice that one doesn't feel Messaged At to get to that point, too.

It's hard for me to say whether or not, if you are only going to do one or the other, you should read this or listen to the audiobook. Either is a good choice. But definitely do one or the other. Don't pass this book by.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Winter by Adam Gopnik

Winter: Five Windows on the Season
by Adam Gopnik
House of Anansi Press, 2011
210 pages

Disclaimer: I love winter. So does Adam Gopnik. And I have decided that I'm going to try to stop apologising for this love of mine, as fashionable as complaining about the snow and cold weather is: winter is a wonderful season, and Gopnik spends quite a lot of time validating my fondness of it. If you thought that maybe five lectures and 210 pages was too long to spend talking about winter, you would be wrong. Gopnik manages it and one gets the impression he could have kept going. And this reader - and most readers, I'd wager, even those who have no love of cold and ice - would have been pretty happy to keep following.

Winter is part of the Massey Lectures series, the printed version of the spoken lecture series heard every year on CBC's Ideas. I quite like the idea of reading each of the lecture series, although I haven't gotten very far with this mission and they just keep on piling up (there is a new one every year. How am I supposed to keep up with that?) 

Gopnik's love for this season - this accident of nature, this clockwork shift to ice due to an axial tilt as our planet orbits the sun - is incredibly well-informed. If you look at the tags on this post, you'll get an idea of the sorts of range this book has. He starts with an exploration of the way the way winter has been viewed through the years has shifted, from being a season of bitterness, loss, and hardship, to being a season of warmth, light, and fellowship. He proceeds to an investigation of the polar winter, winter as place, and specifically the draw it held for Victorian explorers. The third lecture is essentially about Christmas, and the place it holds in the Western secular holiday year, as our festival of cold and light. Then there is an extended digression into winter sport, which is mostly about ice hockey, though he spends a serious amount of time looking at the advent and evolution of ice skating period. (Gopnik is a hockey fan, and is quite clear about that, so the entire chapter devoted to expressing his love of the game is not a surprise.) And finally he looks at what it may mean to us to lose winter, either by moving away from it, or by the self-inflicted wound of climate change. Throughout each chapter he is looking at the psychology of winter; that is, what does winter instill in us, culturally, individually? What ideas and thoughts and meanings do we instill into the season? What is winter, exactly, and what has it been?

Books like this that investigate a single idea from so many angles tend to really capture me, particularly if they're done well, and I think this book is. The writing style is very informal - Gopnik's introduction explains that things, as written out, are essentially transcripts of some practice lectures he gave, with a bit of tightening for readability. At times, when a sentence construct felt a little weird, I read it out loud to myself and that fixed the problem. Gopnik is thoughtful, funny, insightful, and relaxed. He circles around particular points and draws his arguments tighter and tighter. He lets the reader in on secrets, he tells us fascinating facts, he laughs at the absurd even as he respects it.

But there was a bit of a thing, and I almost hesitate to even bring it up, because the problem with noting something like this is that, these days, it can be enough for people to pillory the book and the author unfairly. (It can also be enough to earn me the label of "too sensitive" and I hope I don't deserve it in this case, but I am wary of that too.) It was noticeable, and it did bug me, so:

Gopnik is looking a lot at history, and it is a primarily male history. There are not a lot of women in this book. Franny Mendelssohn, sister of the more familiar composer, gets a brief, positive mention. Anna Brownell Jameson, the writer of Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada - her diary, essentially - gets a lot of page time in the first lecture. And that is about it, except for some nameless skaters flirting with men in images of skating in Central Park, affectionate mentions of his wife and daughter, the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Andersen, and then - the throwaway and unnecessary reference that solidified my feeling that maybe Gopnik should have been paying a bit more attention to the issue of gender in his lectures - a Playmate makes a very baffling metaphorical appearance. It's not that the book feels like a frat party, exactly. I don't think Gopnik is generally disrespectful of the female, the feminine, and certainly not of individual women. But I was noticing a lack, and then the Playmate comment made me actually wince. It wasn't offensive on its own, but given the lack of female presence in the book, it took on a bit more of a profile than it should have.

The thing is, history, as written by most, and as enrolled in these lectures by Gopnik, is very heavy on men and very short on women, and these lectures are a look into the history of our relationship with winter. Men feature prominently. Women don't as much, so when they do feature, I'd like it to matter. I'd like it to not be played for laughs. I'd like it to not feel a little bit as though we are the temptresses, the objects of desire, that our only relationship with winter is as it allows us to express our otherwise forbidden sexuality (as in his argument about the social role ice skating fulfilled for women and gay men around the turn of the twentieth century). Given his admiration and respect for Anna Brownell Jameson, I don't actually think Gopnik really does think of women only in this way. Unfortunately the book doesn't quite reflect that.

There is still lots to love about this book, and lots of really excellent things about it. Sure, Gopnik overreaches his point sometimes, or gets a little repetitive as he circles around his argument; but mostly it's well-written, very accessible, entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, gentle, kind. He captures the feeling of winter, particularly in his first chapter and the chapter on Christmas, the awe and wonder and affection and respect that I hold for the season. It is hard for me to know if someone who isn't as fond of winter as I am would be swayed by his argument, but I think it would be pretty difficult not to be touched by it. Recommended, for Canadians especially: we whinge a lot about this season. I don't think it would hurt us to think about it a little more deeply than just complaining about shoveling and cold.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Terroryaki! by Jennifer K. Chung

by Jennifer K. Chung
3-Day Books, 2011
144 pages

The trouble with reading this while spending the day in bed with a flu-like bug is that it will make you hungry. It will make you very hungry, even though eating sends you into unpleasant spasms. You will not care about the spasms. You will just want to eat chicken teriyaki, preferably the soul-destroyingly good kind.

So, this is not a very scary book, and it's not a very deep book, but it is rather a lot of fun, and it was, aside from the hungry-making bit, the perfect read for a sick day. It doesn't make you think too hard and it moves along at a good clip. The humour is easy-going and the characters easy to like. The plot will not make you work hard, and the writing is good enough to keep this reader engaged, if not in love.

It is helpful to come in with a certain set of expectations, mind you: this is a book that was essentially written in three days. Did you know there was an International 3-Day Novel Contest? There is. And has been going on for a while - Terroryaki! was the winner of the 33rd annual contest. It is therefore a slender little offering, and while clearly polished up a bit, it does have a few rough edges. I learned about it from Pickle Me This, quite a while ago, and when the opportunity came for me to get hold of it, I took it.

Daisy is our first-person narrator, and she is a twenty-four-year-old slacker, a daughter of Taiwanese parents who wants to be an artist, but without much idea of how to get there, or how to break it to her family. She's also a foodie, a teriyaki connoisseur. Her overachieving elder sister Sam is getting married to a man whom their mother holds in the highest contempt, and the story is structured around the months and days leading up to the wedding. Throw in a mysterious, creepy teriyaki truck that appears and disappears on a whim, and a wedding planner straight out of a Norse epic, and some blog reviews of restaurants I desperately want to visit, and you have the cheerful, somewhat frenetic book that is Terroryaki!

The negatives: everything is out there on the surface, and some things don't quite make sense. There's a scene in a nail salon that makes absolutely no sense, and appears to have just been for laughs and to add a bit more mystery around the teriyaki truck, but it didn't really do either for me, particularly as the followup to the scene just confused things a bit more. The relationship that develops between Daisy and the teriyaki truck guy is kind of ... baffling, in that it didn't really get developed so much as assumed. Also, the teriyaki truck guy talks in such an odd cadence and it felt painfully artificial, even in a book that is pretty silly.

The positives, which in the end outweigh those negatives for me: the food, the humour, the family (particularly the dynamic between Daisy and her dad) and the fact that silly or not, things work to create an entertaining story. But especially the food. As I mentioned, Daisy is a foodie, and she blogs about her favourite (and not-so-favourite) restaurants, and we are treated to a sampling of her blog entries. (And no, they don't really have much to do with the plot, except that they allow for a bit more character development of Patrick, Sam's fiancee, than the rest of the book could squeeze in; this is okay, as they are humourous and delicious.) Daisy's got a good sense of how to be entertaining without being nasty, which is a good thing in a restaurant review. She's also enthusiastic, which is also key. And her good reviews make me want to eat the food she's talking about, badly. She also talks lovingly about the art of teriyaki right in the text, and about other foods too.

A sidenote, but worth noting: the production quality of this little gem is quite impressive. The cover is perfect, the paper weight is lovely, and the watermarks on the first pages of each chapter actually really add to the experience of the book, for some reason. The blogging sections are different enough but not gimmicky. This was a nice book to hold in the hand and to look at.

Something a little different, something a little fun, something a lot tasty. Recommended if you have an afternoon to spare and need something to take your mind off anything but your stomach.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Heriot by Margaret Mahy

by Margaret Mahy
Faber and Faber, 2009
353 pages

There is something about Margaret Mahy's writing. The way this woman used words is special, and I always find myself feeling a little breathless and awed when I am reading her books - even her children's books, our favourite of which is Bubble Trouble. I don't think her writing is for everyone; I do think, occasionally, that the way the words are put together takes precedence over the story and the characters, and a perfectly marvelous little jewel of the English language will shine a little too brightly for the rest of the paragraph to support it. But I am in love with my language, and am okay to admire something that is just so beautiful, or apt, or beautifully strange that it pulls one away from the story it is telling for just the briefest moment.

Beautifully strange pretty much describes this book, as well. The titular character, Heriot Tarbas, is only one of three point-of-view characters in the novel, though he gets the majority of the book. We meet him as a boy, living on a farm built in the ruins of a much grander structure (love this) and surrounded by his industrious and loving, but somewhat puzzled, family. Heriot has always been a little strange, plagued by visions, vivid dreams, and terrible headaches and "fits." So he is marked as being different. But he loves his life on the farm, and when events conspire to pull him away from it, he is desperate to escape his destiny.

Heriot is inextricably tied, by magic and then by friendship, to Dysart, the third son of the King of Hoad, our third point-of-view character and considered "mad" because he too is plagued by strange visions and dreams, as well as extraneous because he has two elder brothers to be heirs to the throne. The second point-of-view character is Linnet, daughter of one of the Lords of Hoad, whose fortunes become tied to Dysart's and by extension to Heriot's when she and Dysart are thrown together in classes while Dysart's father is negotiating a peace with their warring neighbours.

It struck me as interesting that I've now read two novels in the past two months that are about how difficult maintaining a peace can be - more difficult, in some ways, than constant warring. In both it is the generation that grows up in peacetime, that is used to peace and understands their function in it, that can be the instruments of preserving the peace when it becomes strained. But this is only one of the themes in Heriot worth mentioning. The book also explores the dangers of seeing people as symbols, themes of love and friendship, the process of self-discovery and self-actualization. It looks carefully at the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us, and what those stories can mean to the teller and the told, and what powers one has and doesn't have over the stories told about oneself.

It is not a perfect book, despite my love for it. Frankly I thought Linnet was entirely underused, her storyline somewhat predictable and undeveloped, and that was disappointing. And all of the characters can be a bit slippery, hard to define, despite being distinct and interesting. There can be a distance between the reader and the characters, even the point-of-view characters. I was fascinated by Heriot and grew to love him; I loved Cayley, the fourth major character, from the start, but he's not an easy character to pin down, either. This is not completely unexpected with Mahy, though, I don't think. I feel the same distance from Sorry and his family in her book The Changeover and I think it is a bit of a function of the strangeness of the characters' abilities and situations. Because that's the thing: there is strangeness, and discomfort. The characters experience it and the reader does, too, and not just because the characters are experiencing it. There is something about Mahy's writing that can be uncompromisingly odd. I wish I could tell you how she does it.

The other thing that amazes me is that she can walk that line between being beautifully (sometimes viscerally, brutally) descriptive and can take a person out of the story with her language, and yet I have never considered her to be flowery or purple in her prose. It all seems to fit, or perhaps I am giving her a pass because passages like "What he could make out was the unfamiliar accent, much quicker and more clipped than the family voices, and more careful. Lord Glass polished every word a little bit before he let it out on its own in the world." delight me so much.

And if you are the sort of person who needs to have all the blanks filled in, this is not a book that will agree with you much; there are periods of time that go unexplored and many things that go unsaid. The reader has to do a bit of work, and it's not always easy work either. I have noticed, too, that some people find the ending too explain-y, but I didn't mind that particular bit at all. The clues were all there, and I found it cathartic to have someone finally lay it out, make the final important connections.

I can't say for sure whether this is the best introduction to Mahy if you've never read anything by her; to be honest, I've read a lot of her children's books (all of them? I hope not) and only two of her books for older readers. Between the two, I do think The Changeover is more accessible, because Laura's an easier character to grasp and to inhabit. But Heriot has a scope and a sweep that The Changeover does not, and lovers of high fantasy who are willing to give something a bit different a try, or who love it when an author revels in her facility with words and is able to share some of that joy with her readers, would do well to read this one.